By Spencer Gates, Upper School Teacher
For the past three years, I have been teaching the culminating ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class in Westtown Upper School. I cannot remember how I was first asked to become involved with the program, but I know I jumped at the chance to do so. Although I was familiar with several European languages and had taught English to some international students for as long as I could remember, this was my first experience working with a whole class of students whose first language was not English.
Although I believe my ESOL classes were reasonably successful, I still felt something of a fraud. After all, I had absolutely no official qualifications for the job. I looked for appropriate classes to take, but never quite got around to doing much about it, apart from examining course descriptions. Some time this spring, however, my colleague, Melissa Graf-Evans, emailed me details of a series of three online courses run through TESOL. I applied, and, much to my surprise, I was accepted.
This June, I began my first ever online class and I approached it with trepidation. Would I understand what to do? Would it be worth my while? Would I be over prepared? Under prepared? Bored? Soon, all was revealed. On the most basic level, it consisted of thirty students split into two groups of fifteen, each under the aegis of a separate professor. It was surprisingly similar to an in-person class—except that it was online. We had assignments to read, videos to watch, and interactions to take part in. Friday (Day 3), Sunday (Day 5), and especially Tuesday (Day 7) became of utmost importance, because that was when assignments were due. We wrote several two- to three-page papers, took (and re-took) a grammar quiz, wrote a lesson plan, and interacted with each other.
I have always found classroom interaction to be the most exciting part of college courses, and this one was no exception. I did pair work with Tushar, who teaches classes of 160 students in India; Judith, who is married to a doctor and has brought up nine children; and Sarah who has never taught and intends to be a missionary. In addition, I interacted online with the other eleven members of my group, some of whom have been teaching for years and others who are about to enter the classroom for the first time this fall. I felt like the Oxford clerk in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: “And gladly would [I] learn and gladly teach.”
I also had to re-think my approach to English grammar. I already knew that the “rules” of English grammar came about to explain the way English operates, but there are so many that English speakers just learn automatically. For example, I am “in my house,” but “at home.” When am I “in the airport” as opposed to “at the airport”? I am normally “in a car,” but “on the bus.” When am I “in a plane” as opposed to being “on a plane”? And under what circumstances do I put an article with a noun or make it plural? “I am going to buy a chicken”; “the chicken we ate yesterday was delicious”; “I like chicken”; “I like chickens.” In the past, I was inclined to tell my international students “It just is that way.” Now I can give them a rule that they will be able to apply.
This six-week course was extremely useful and I had plenty of time to work at it. My next course is in the fall, however, and I am going to have to balance it with all my other obligations. At the same time, I believe that my ESOL3 will be a stronger class this year as a result of this experience. I cannot speak for other online courses, but this one was definitely worthwhile.